Sexual Assault Justice Initiative: Promoting and Measuring Success in Sexual Assault Prosecutions

"How are we doing?" As prosecutors, we are constantly working to improve our response to sexual violence. We strive to be leaders in the effort to improve the response of the criminal justice system as whole-to promote safety and healing for victims, to hold offenders justly accountable, and to make our communities safer. To those ends, we collaborate with allied professionals to coordinate our efforts and close gaps in the system, we leverage specialized resources and training opportunities, and we implement promising new practices while refining established ones.

But how do we measure our progress? How do we know whether we are succeeding in our efforts to improve our handling of sexual assault cases? Historically, conviction rates have been used as the primary measure of "success" for law enforcement and prosecutors. What we have learned, however, is that conviction rates alone are poor indicators of the success of a jurisdiction's response to these crimes. We know, for example, that difficult or complex cases may be "weeded out" before trial-and sometimes even before arrest or charging-resulting in a deceptively high conviction rate for those cases that survive pretrial proceedings. This is rarely the result of conscious or callous disregard for victim and community safety. Rather, it is most often the result of failure to effectively employ practices that lead to the most just result possible for even the most challenging cases. Conviction rates simply do not capture other, more elusive but still measurable, factors related to the quality of justice.

Sexual Assault Justice Initiative

The Sexual Assault Justice Initiative (SAJI) is a partnership among AEquitas, the Justice Management Institute (JMI), and the Urban Institute. The Initiative was funded in July 2016 by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women (OVW). The goal of SAJI is to develop and implement a set of performance measures for sexual assault prosecutions. These measures will target accountability-related outputs and outcomes, such as appropriateness of sentence, support for victims, and victim satisfaction, rather than focusing solely on conviction rates. With a method to evaluate these outcomes, we can develop and refine sustainable prosecution practices that contribute to success in these cases. SAJI will implement and test the effectiveness of these measures and practices in seven pilot-site jurisdictions.

SAJI presents a unique opportunity to not only measure success but to improve how the justice system in general, and prosecution in particular, responds to sexual assault cases. To that end, AEquitas and its partners have developed the Model Response to Sexual Violence for Prosecutors: An Invitation to Lead (RSVP Model) to guide prosecution practices. The RSVP Model promotes the effective use of available evidence and employment of trial strategies, while stressing the importance of collaboration and coordination among allied professionals. The RSVP Model serves as the foundation for the development of easy-to-implement performance measures that the seven pilot sites will test. The Model, including a set of performance measures, and additional resources (including an Implementation Guide), are being published throughout the SAJI to enable any jurisdiction to improve its response to sexual violence.

History of the Initiative

In 2014, researchers Katherine Tellis and Cassia Spohn found that "[o]ne of the most enduring realities of sexual assault is that very few cases result in arrest, prosecution, and conviction of [perpetrators]". Research conducted before and after this study also support this conclusion, with explanations ranging from gender bias to resource shortages to concern about conviction rates.

In an effort to address the issues raised by the limited research available, AEquitas convened a Roundtable on Prosecutorial Performance Beyond Conviction Rates in Sexual Assault Cases. Prosecutors and experts representing other allied professions were brought together to discuss the elements of effective prosecution and the limitations of using conviction rates as the sole measure of success in sexual assault cases. The discussion generated foundational ideas around alternative ways to measure the effectiveness of prosecution practices and policies. Ideas generated at the Roundtable, along with the tireless work of prosecutors and allied professionals across the country, were instrumental in the genesis of SAJI.


Webinar Recording

11CASSIA SPOHN & KATHARINE TELLIS, POLICING AND PROSECUTING SEXUAL ASSAULT: INSIDE THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM 101 (Lynne Rienner 2014) (stating that in many cases, especially those in which the suspect is a stranger to the victim, a suspect is not identified. In cases in which a suspect is identified, the police will not necessarily make an arrest, and in cases where an arrest is made, the prosecutor will not necessarily file charges); see also Megan A. Alderden & Sarah E. Ullman, Creating a More Complete and Current Picture: Examining Police and Prosecutor Decision-Making When Processing Sexual Assault Cases, 18(5) VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN 525-51 (2012) (a survey of several studies' reflecting that only 40% of cases referred to police result in an arrest and only 50% result in felony charges).

Special Initiatives